by Sally Colby
Nearly everyone remembers houseplants as part of the décor in their parents’ or grandparents’ homes. But houseplants are back, and stronger than ever. It isn’t just a trend for a generation familiar with ivy, spider plants and philodendron.
Millennials seem especially interested in houseplants, perhaps due to staying at home during the pandemic. Social media has also helped to boost houseplant popularity, with Instagram influencers marketing unique varieties and colors. AmericanHort recently brought together four growers and brokers to discuss the jump in houseplant sales, trends and availability.
Denise Godfrey is a second-generation grower at Olive Hill Greenhouses in California where she works with her dad. “We got started in 1973 when houseplants were really in,” said Godfrey. “Now they’re back, and it’s exciting.” Godfrey says January is typically their busiest month and July is slowest, but last year’s numbers in July gave them no chance to reset.
Godfrey emphasized the importance of growers putting out quality products. “We’re careful about what kind of plants we’re putting on the market,” she said. “When you’re sending out something that doesn’t have a good root system, it isn’t going to be successful in the home. If we take an underdeveloped plant and sell it a month early, it’s going to have to be replaced in a month. It makes a lot more sense to wait until there’s root development so people have success.”
Godfrey noted that plants with a trailing habit have become popular, a trend that caught them off guard. “The challenge with those is having to cut plants back and replant cuttings,” she said. “It’s a big job. It was hard to move Pothos during summer about five or six years ago, so we adjusted our numbers, and right now it seems like if there’s an opportunity to buy more it’s more with the uprights.”
Kingston White, a broker with Morning Dew Tropical in Florida, described himself as an optimist when it comes to selling plants. “Whether it’s Instagram influence or a push for well-being, there’s a strong interest in plants,” White said.
He said more people are interested in plants, and he’s also seeing a tightening supply. The supply issue is due to several factors: some cutting suppliers in different parts of the world were forced to close down due to COVID-19, and some are still affected by the results of natural disasters in prior years. “Right now we’re experiencing a spring surge,” he said. “Garden centers across the country all want plants at the same time.” White added that even without those factors, there will always be “in between” periods when certain crops aren’t available.
Regarding the growing popularity of online plant sales, White said such venues impact availability because buyers are very variety-specific and seek trendy plants that look good on Instagram and will be shared by others. Rare plants are especially sought after and bring premium prices.
Bryan Johnson, of Tri-State Foliage in Ohio, said he’s amazed at where the industry has gone over the last few years. “I’m so excited about it,” he said, “but also have some sincere concerns about where we’re going in the next five years.” Johnson said the demand for foliage is worldwide, which also affects supply. “There’s also a huge shortage of labor,” he said. “A lot of labor is moving to higher-paying jobs such as construction.”
Regarding securing plants in the current market, Johnson said it’s important to remain loyal to a broker or wholesaler – whoever is the go-between for sourcing plants – during this time. “As someone who supplies plants, that means a lot to me,” he said. “You’re going to see the same thing on the retail end – do your customers remain loyal to you?”
Johnson said the trend is for smaller pots, mostly four, six and eight inches, which turn around faster. But he’s concerned about that trend because of where that might leave growers in five years. “There’s always going to be a difference in the end buyer,” he said. “That’s where it comes back to the independent garden center to step back and think about long term. You need to start educating your customers about the differences between the box store plants and the plants you’re selling. There is a difference. The only reason it’s selling at a box store is because it’s a less expensive plant, and the reason it’s less expensive is because it took less time to grow.”
Despite shortages, there are some plants, such as Dracaena, that are consistently available. “It goes back to educating the customer,” said Johnson. “Look at a Ficus lyrata. It’s one of the worst plants you can put inside. It’s just not a good houseplant, but for the past three years, we continue to sell them. It goes back to taking the time to educate the customer to what is best in the long term … If in a year or two plants keep pooping out on them, we might lose some of the momentum we have.”
Maxwell Mercer, of Mercer Botanicals in Florida, said growers haven’t stopped “spring” since March 2020. Mercer has been in touch with tissue culture labs in Costa Rica and Guatemala, and said they’re following CDC guidelines, but production is cut in half. “We aren’t getting everything we’re supposed to,” he said. “We can supplement a little by having our own stock, but it has definitely created some problems. When we do get product, our average crop time is six months, but people don’t want to wait that long.” The labs and farms he’s spoken with believe they’ll be back on track in July, so he’s hoping for a more steady supply in 2022.
When it’s time to plant for next year’s production, Mercer said he’ll make estimates based on past sales. “Right now we’re taking just about anything we can get,” he said. “I took in more product during the first shutdown for COVID than we have in weeks because it was available. It’s taking everything we can and cramming the greenhouses just full. We’re just waiting on grow time for them to finish.” He’s used to a slowdown in summer that helps catch plants up to full size, but right now people are taking plants as soon as they’re available. “It’s a slow trickle out of the nursery until demand slows down enough for us to catch up.”
While Mercer used to grow a lot of three-inch pots, he dropped almost all of those because the margin is too low for the high labor cost. “Florida voted for $15 minimum wage and California is on that track,” he said. “Growers are going to want to cut labor as much as possible, and it’s going to be easier to do that with bigger products that have bigger margins and not have to have the labor to flip a four-inch product so many times.” Mercer added that being less variety-specific is crucial right now because it helps with availability.
Regarding availability, Mercer said the key is communication with growers and brokers. “If they’re taking prebooks, the further out the better,” he said. “But remember average crop time is six months. If you’re looking for a big chunk of product, make sure you’re doing that prior to them planting. Communicate and work together – we’re all in this industry together and we all have to work together to get through this.”